POSTCARD FROM PARIS: L’ATELIER D’ALBERTO GIACOMETTI
Pompidou Centre, 9 Rue Beaubourg, 75004 Paris, France
The Pompidou Centre in the January sunshine is all sharp edges and flat colours, and looks as bright and strange as ever against Paris’s soft winter greys. Inside, Alberto Giacometti’s archetypal bohemian studio – gloomy, shabby, and cluttered with art – is exploded into the pristine emptiness of the sixth-floor galleries. The exhibition brings together his famous walking figures, tipping precariously forward on their spindly legs, with the fragments of others, stripped down to their wire spines, broken up and reworked into near-oblivion. Surrounding these fierce, fragile pieces there are paintings, sculptures and photographs spanning the artist’s whole life, including busts of his family he made as a teenager and paintings of the artist as a child by his Impressionist father. This is a peculiarly personal retrospective, as interested in the artist’s world as in his output. Combining exhibition pieces with sculptures that were still in the artist’s studio when he died, its real power is in laying bare the chance that calls any single piece ‘finished.’ It presents the studio at 46 rue Hippolyte-Maindron as an artwork in itself: one that the artist never completed after installing himself there in 1926, and that he only left with his death in 1965.
Mythologised by Jean Genet in a 1957 magazine article from which the exhibition takes its title, Giacometti’s studio continued to have a kind of celebrity of its own, part of the artist’s identity but resonant in itself, with its small courtyard, rickety stairs, high windows and dusty figures in plaster and bronze. A steady stream of journalists came to probe the interconnectedness of artist and atelier, and one darkened room brings together hundreds of magazine article, interviews and photographs of the artist at work in this space. Photographs by Doisneau, Cartier-Bresson and Brassaï illustrate the stories, in which Giacometti’s craggy face looms out of the shadows among the sculpted and sketched faces he resembles.
A series of open-plan rooms fans out from this core, spanning the range of Giacometti’s production from his surrealist beginnings and various incarnations of hard, ‘Disagreeable Objects’ and impenetrable surfaces. Throughout his career Giacometti was closely involved with various kinds of design, particularly through the influence of his brother Diego, who worked as a designer in the studio next door and served as model, collaborator, and assistant to Alberto throughout his life. There are surrealist lighting fixtures on display and one surprising room displays Giacometti’s designs for silk scarves – small outbursts of colour in an otherwise earthy and monochromatic show. Behind these stretch rows of sketches for a portrait of Matisse: fragments of the same face swimming up again and again out of the blank paper.
The sense of Giacometti’s immersion in his creative process, and the endlessness of that process, is overwhelming: his drawings and sculptures don’t seem finished so much as interrupted. Forming a deliberate, jarring parallel to the room documenting the artist at work, another central room displays photographs taken just after the artist’s death in 1965, as his famous studio was inventoried and dismantled to preserve the drawings and carvings that covered the walls and furniture. Pieces of wall and furniture are displayed here, evoking Giacometti’s total immersion in his space and bearing the traces of his hands. Several of the dismantling photos include Giacometti’s wife, Annette, alone in the studio. She features in several of the older photographs, as well as being a frequent model for the artist, but here her presence registers the shock of his absence. One of the magazine profiles of Giacometti tells a story in which the 20-year-old Alberto was staying in the home of a man who was taken ill and died suddenly. The artist described his sense of death as an ambush, and claimed he never quite recovered from the suddenness of the man’s departure. The story gets its visual record in Annette’s shocked aloneness in the middle of the studio that was an extension of her husband’s mind and personality.
Giacometti’s familiar sculptures – bent forward but rooted to the spot – always evoke, for me at least, a sense of loneliness and frailty. Here the tiniest figure stands on a clean white expanse in a glass cube: a smudge on a page, an insect on a pin. In other exhibitions, these figures, displayed as refined, finished objects, seem like a definitive assertion of human isolation. But here, rooted instead in the space of their creation, surrounded by earlier and later versions, sketches, maquettes, photographs, and the fleeting image of the artist at work, they embody the energy and creative life of the studio.